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Debates, Viewpoints, Roundtable
September 15, 2023  

1. Chris Wickham on ‘The Economic Logic of Medieval Societies’: A Response*

Shami Ghosh

Past & Present, Volume 260, Issue 1, August 2023, Pages 269–286,


Chris Wickham’s theory regarding the feudal economy is predicated on the continuing existence and numerical majority of peasant producers with direct access to their means of subsistence. While his theory holds good for the period up to c.1200, after that point, the numbers of those without direct access to their full means of subsistence increased so much that their impact on the economy has to be considered in any explanatory model. Furthermore, subsistence needs to be understood not only as what is needed for biological survival, but also what is needed for social survival and reproduction. Because of the extent of market demand and dependence in the period after c.1200, the economic logic of societies in core regions during this period does not accord well with the model Wickham proposes. It is also, however, not to be understood as capitalist, proto-capitalist, or necessarily leading towards capitalism. This period needs to be understood on its own terms as neither feudal nor capitalist.

A reply to Shami Ghosh

Chris Wickham

Past & Present, Volume 260, Issue 1, August 2023, Pages 287–296,


Shami Ghosh has written a highly stimulating critique of my article, ‘How did the Feudal Economy Work? The Economic Logic of Medieval Societies’, which appeared in 2021 in no. 251 of this journal. As he says himself, he and I have discussed some of the issues, both in agreement and in fruitful disagreement, for ten years and more; and, indeed, he critiqued my own article before I submitted it, in what was certainly the most comprehensive critique I had from the friends I sent it to. So I am reasonably well prepared for the main thrust of his argument in his Response here. We do agree on a lot. Where we may seem not to agree, I think that sometimes it is because he has misread some of the core arguments I was trying to make, which I need therefore to restate briefly here, to avoid misunderstandings by others. But we do disagree as well, especially about how to categorize the economies of parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, and I think that Ghosh’s misreadings of what I said partly stem from that real disagreement. I will be more tentative in my reply there, as it concerns a period I have not studied in detail, and he has; but the parameters of our divergences of approach and interpretation do have, I think, some heuristic value in themselves.

2. Flows of History

Tamara Fernando, Felice Physioc, Alexis Rider

Past & Present, Volume 260, Issue 1, August 2023, Pages e1–e31,


What does it mean to write the history of water? In this virtual issue we set out to explore how articles published in Past and Present, a journal of social history, have addressed the topic of water through time, with a caveat that several important conversations on water have also taken place in other scholarly venues. Within the arbitrary constraint of a specific journal’s archives, the articles reviewed date mostly from the year 2000 onwards, reflecting the growing importance of water to scholarly (as well as cultural, political and artistic) agendas in the previous two decades. We have grouped these articles according to two major trends: ‘Water and Power’ (section I) and ‘Ecologizing Water’ (section II). In what follows, we draw out our two major concerns without aiming to be definitive, hoping instead to articulate two connected approaches to water history that constitute one base for a rapidly growing and developing field.

3. The New History of Old Inequality

Trevor Jackson

Past & Present, Volume 259, Issue 1, May 2023, Pages 262–289,


Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the publication in 2014 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, income and wealth inequality have returned to public and scholarly interest. Most subsequent discussion has focused on the fall and rise of inequality in the twentieth century, but meanwhile another body of economic history literature has reconstructed long-run inequality dynamics in early modern Europe. This article surveys the new history of old inequality and discusses its three principal findings: first, that between about 1300 and about 1900 inequality increased continuously almost everywhere, meaning there is no clear link between economic growth and inequality. Secondly, the only phenomena that substantially reduced inequality were unprecedented catastrophes. Thirdly, although few things have decreased inequality, many strategies of elite wealth defence have increased it, motivating new comparative concepts like the ‘inequality possibility frontier’ and the ‘extraction ratio’. Inequality will continue to be a subject of urgent political and moral attention, and this field opens up a research agenda that could bridge the methodological divide between economic history as practised by economists and by historians.

4. Viewpoint New Approaches to the ‘Plague of Justinian’

Peter Sarris

Past & Present, Volume 254, Issue 1, February 2022, Pages 315–346,


This viewpoint is meant as a contribution to debate over the nature and significance of the ‘Justinianic Plague’, which struck Western Eurasia between the sixth and eighth centuries CE, and the methodological challenges posed by attempting to reconcile historical evidence with that derived from the realm of the Natural Sciences. In recent years, major advances have been made in our genetic understanding of the Justinianic Plague. Yet growing scientific interest in the disease has coincided with a concerted effort amongst some historians to seek to downplay its historical importance. This article surveys our current state of historical and scientific understanding with respect to the sixth-century pandemic, responds to the recent attempts to argue that the disease had only a minimal impact on the societies that it struck, and considers how historians should respond to the burgeoning scientific evidence in order to take study of the plague forward. For co-operation between geneticists, environmental scientists, archaeologists and historians, it argues, offers the chance to transform our understanding of how, when and where the plague spread and to assess its impact across the Afro-Eurasian world as a whole, and not just on the Mediterranean, for which we have our best written sources.

5. Out of the East (or North or South): A Response to Philip Slavin

Monica H Green Author Notes

Past & Present, Volume 256, Issue 1, August 2022, Pages 283–323,


This article responds to Philip Slavin’s ‘Out of the West: Formation of a Permanent Plague Reservoir in South-Central Germany (1349–1356) and Its Implications’. Genetics has transformed the study of plague, one of the most lethal diseases in human history. But this technically demanding science raises questions of what constitutes valid evidence and supportable argument when examining historical phenomena at a microscopic level. Slavin argues that two new lineages of Yersinia pestis, the causative organism of plague, were seeded in central Germany following the Black Death; appearing sequentially, one lineage caused plague outbreaks in the 1350s and early 1360s, only to retreat and be replaced by a second lineage. Here, evidence is adduced to support the early central European proliferation of one lineage of Y. pestis, but also to suggest that the second lineage arose simultaneously in a different locale, outside Europe and within different epidemiological parameters. Because of the inherent rarity of biological evidence, the reconstruction of epidemiological phenomena will always require consilience with archaeological and documentary sources. Establishing ‘best practices’ of analysis and verification in this emerging multidisciplinary field has implications not only for Europe’s four hundred-year experience with plague, but for all fields of global health history.

Reply: Out of the West — and neither East, nor North, nor South

Philip Slavin

Past & Present, Volume 256, Issue 1, August 2022, Pages 325–360,


The article below is a reply to Professor Green’s response to my recent article ‘Out of the West: Formation of a Permanent Plague Reservoir in South-Central Germany (1349–1356) and Its Implications’.1 I should perhaps open with a caveat: I respect ideas that differ from my own views, and firmly believe that it is controversies that advance science and knowledge. Hence, I normally refrain from writing and publishing replies to colleagues’ works. However, given the conceptual and methodological importance of the topic and its relevance for the incredibly fast-growing field of plague history in general, I strongly feel Professor Green’s response merits a rebuttal. It is especially important in the context of the most recent publication of three early fourteenth-century genomes from Kara-Djigach (North Kyrgyzstan), associated with the very early history of the Second Pandemic in general and the Black Death in particular, by Spyrou et al.2 These new findings have a profound impact on the substance of debate regarding the origins and early history of medieval plague; and, moreover, allow an opportunity to discuss further the taxing methodological issues that all medievalists must confront in this field, when bringing palaeogenetic evidence into dialogue with documentary historical sources.

6. Beyond Truth: Fiction and Disinformation in Early Modern Europe

Past &Present, Volume 257, Issue Supplement_16, November 2022

7. Universities in the Holy Roman Empire

The English Historical Review, Volume 137, Issue 586, June 2022, Pages 884–889,


The history of universities in the Holy Roman Empire has long interested scholars, and it is striking to see a raft of new publications based on doctoral dissertations addressing not only particular foundations in Central Europe but also wider research questions. They have in common an interest in the ways in which university foundations responded to the non-academic interests of late medieval society. The books all assume a degree of knowledge about the role of late medieval universities—yet they were very different from their modern counterparts. Therefore, I will set out some general characteristics of universities in the Holy Roman Empire before turning to the individual books.

The pre-modern university was not an institution of tertiary education comparable to today’s universities. It was a corporately constituted association of masters and students, which was legally and economically privileged in a number of ways. From the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, universities emerged as new institutions of higher learning in Italy, France, England and the Iberian Peninsula. The Holy Roman Empire only later became part of this European university landscape. All three books address this transitional period, as universities in the Empire became more clearly aligned with the interests of their surrounding territories. The Great Western Schism of the fourteenth century led the different European territories to support the competing claims of rival popes. Papal privileges for universities and the benefices of their members were directly affected by this: the supra-regional attraction of the old universities in Italy and France weakened for students from the Empire, and smaller-scale particular interests gained in importance for the foundation of universities. In the Empire north of the Alps, the leading noble dynasties of Luxembourg, Habsburg and Wittelsbach now founded universities, at Prague (1348), Vienna (1365/84) and Heidelberg (1386). The cities of Cologne (1388) and Erfurt (1379/92) adapted their long traditions of higher education to the new organisational form in order to remain competitive. This first wave extended into the fifteenth century with foundations in Leipzig, Rostock, Würzburg and Leuven. In the 1450s, a second wave of foundations started with Greifswald in 1456 and ended with Wittenberg in 1503 and Frankfurt an der Oder in 1506. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, all the princely territories and many important cities in the Empire had a university. With the onset of the Reformation, yet more universities were founded to satisfy new educational and theological needs. As these books remind us, however, the organisational structure remained similar.

8. Roundtable: The Society of Prisoners

The Historical Journal, Volume 65 - Issue 2 - March 2022

Guillaume Calafat: The Mediterranean as a Society of Prisoners

Randall McGowen: The Prisoner of War and the Eighteenth-Century Prison

Margaret Hunt: Prisoner Regimes and a Transnational History from Below

Rachel Weil: War Imprisonment and British Prison Reform

Renaud Morieux: Author's Response: Some Thoughts on War Prisons, the Law of Nations, and Historical Comparisons

9. The Industrial Revolution as a Global Conjuncture

Journal of Global History, Volume 17, Issue 1, March 2022

Patrick O’Brien: Was the British industrial revolution a conjuncture in global economic history?

Peer Vries: Patrick O’Brien on industrialization, little Britain and the wider world

Leandro Prados de la Escosura: The industrial revolution, an unintended consequence of self-defence?


Institute of European Civilazation